McKenzie can afford 'grunt-laugh' with newbies
They have been Ewen McKenzie's Wallabies for a year now and bear the scars and bruises to prove it.
There have been six losses and 10 wins, seven of those back-to-back after one of the most pointed post-match sprays James Slipper has heard from his former coach at Queensland.
It was in the dressing rooms at Twickenham, after Australia let slip a 13-6 half-time lead to slump to their sixth loss from eight tests under the new coach.
"Ewen had a fair few stern words to say after that game and it kicked us into gear," Slipper says.
"Test match footy is about pressure and who can withstand it. We did such a good job in the first half that it was a real let-down, letting the game go like that. I think he felt we let them back into the game.
"It was a learning curve for us. You look at the other games on that spring tour and we really put teams to the sword - that was a word used throughout the rest of the tour."
It didn't end in Europe. The Wallabies sent France home winless seven months later, racking up a winning streak not achieved by an Australian test side in 14 years.
Yet for all the progress, there are a few big mountains left to climb.
McKenzie's Wallabies come full circle next weekend in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash.
"It has to be a win. If we're going to win the Bledisloe it has to be at ANZ (Stadium)," Slipper says.
"We want to be competitive against all teams this year and we want to put sides under pressure. We just have to focus on our own game, make sure everyone does their own job well, and I think that's going to give us the best opportunity to win the game."
Scott Fardy agrees, and says the Sydney clash adds an extra layer of expectation.
"We want to win in front of our home crowd,'' he says. ''If 83,000 people come to our game, they've got to expect that we'll come away with a result."
Anything will be better than the spectacular anti-climax that unfolded at Olympic Park this time last year. With two weeks' preparation the Wallabies did the best they could for 40 minutes then went down six tries to two.
"The game plan we took in was a bit put-together at the last minute," Slipper says.
"We didn't have much time to tinker with our weaknesses or what we thought we could change either, so we went in blindfolded last year."
He and Fardy are two of the new generation McKenzie ushered in the moment he swapped Ballymore for Sydney last July.
Fardy wondered if he would ever play test rugby before McKenzie decided his work rate and on-ball toughness made him indispensable to the Wallabies.
"We were pretty shattered," he says. "In my first three tests we didn't get a win."
THE TURNING POINTS
The England spray wouldn't come for another two months.
There was the Springboks embarrassment at Suncorp Stadium, a rain-soaked grind against the Pumas in Perth, another loss in Cape Town and - finally - running rugby in Rosario and Dunedin.
"You could say we were under the pump there for a bit, everyone questioning what we were doing," Slipper says.
"But we flew over to South Africa and Argentina ... that's where I felt like it clicked a bit. We changed a few things and it is one of those countries that's tough to win away from home in. So it was good to get away and get a good win. It showed that if everyone did their job well, we could do good things."
The 41-33 scoreline in the third Bledisloe might not look much different to the others, but three tries said Rosario wasn't a fluke. Which is why McKenzie was dismayed that night at Twickenham. Something had to give.
It did - and then some - in Dublin, when six players were stood down for drinking and missed the test against Scotland.
They won that one, and the next, in an important display of team unity.
Warren Gatland wanted an Australian scalp for Wales after his British and Irish Lions coup. Australia had a one-point lead at halftime.
"The last game in Wales was pretty significant. We went down early and were under a fair bit of pressure, and the guys fought their way out of it," Fardy says.
"After five long weeks on tour, we held on and got a good result in front of a crowd in Cardiff."
McKenzie exhaled in one long breath over Christmas. He had pulled the season back from the edge and had six months - not two weeks - to prepare for the next challenge.
He had the benefit of one of the better Australian conference performances in Super Rugby and holed the team up at Sanctuary Cove to keep their focus trained solely on Les Bleus.
"We prepared excellently during the week, the guys came in in great nick, with a great attitude, and we got a great result," Fardy says of the 50-23 victory.
"Especially after losing our skipper (Stephen Moore) in the first minute-and-a-half of the game, (Michael Hooper) and Adam Ashley-Cooper stepped up and led us so well. That made a huge difference for us."
He may have lost the foundation stone of his cultural revolution, but Ewen McKenzie processed Moore's injury and quickly anointed his successor.
Hooper led the side to a clean sweep over the next two tests and, at some point, the Wallabies noticed their coach was smiling again. More or less.
"He's a lot more relaxed now," Slipper says. "He doesn't mind a little smile now and then if you're lucky, or a grunt. If you pull off a good joke, he'll give you a grunt or two."
Fardy says it's known as the "grunt-laugh". When "Link", as they call him, finds himself amused.
"He's had his opportunity now to develop his program the way he wants to," Fardy says.
"Things were probably put on him at a fairly late stage last year, but there was the best part of six months between the Wales test in December and the first test in June. That's probably made him a bit happier."
Sydney Morning Herald